Journalists detained, attacked while reporting in Crimea

New York, March 11, 2014–Two reporters were detained by armed men in the autonomous republic of Crimea, in southern Ukraine, while other journalists have reported being assaulted covering the crisis and their equipment damaged or seized, according to news reports. More than a dozen broadcasters have also been censored, the reports said. 

Tension has increased in the predominantly Russian-speaking southern and eastern Ukraine since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country and was ousted by Parliament in late February. Russian military occupied parts of the Crimean peninsula, and the Crimean Parliament voted last week to become part of Russia and scheduled a referendum for March 16, which has been declared illegal by Ukrainian and Western governments. Multiple anti-press violations have been reported since the crisis began.

On Sunday, Olena Maksimenko, a journalist for the Ukrainian weekly Tyzhden, and Oles Kromplyas, a freelance photojournalist, were reported missing after being detained by armed men in uniforms at a checkpoint at the entry to Crimea from mainland Ukraine, according to news reports and Oksana Romaniuk, director of the Kiev-based press freedom group Institute of Mass Information. The journalists were headed to cover events in Crimea and were traveling with two opposition activists and a driver. Citing local activists and police, Reuters and the news website Ukrainska Pravda said today all five were released. 

“We call on parties in Crimea to respect the law and to stop trying to intimidate and obstruct the media,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said.

The Institute of Mass Information reported that at least seven journalists working for outlets including the Ukrainian TV channels Inter, STB, and Channel 5 and the Russian news website Russkaya Planeta (Russian Planet) were physically assaulted on Friday by armed and masked men while covering an attempt by uniformed men to storm a Ukrainian military base in Sevastopol. The assailants were dressed in plainclothes and in military camouflage with no insignia. Some of the journalists sought treatment at a local hospital for injuries including broken fingers.

Armed men on Monday stopped two correspondents for Bulgarian National Television (BNT) at a Crimea checkpoint, searched them, and seized their protective helmets and vests, one of the journalists told the daily 24 Chasa today. One reporter told 24 Chasa that he and other reporters were denied press accreditation to cover the parliament. “We were officially told the Parliament had given out too many media accreditations already,” Mario Gavrilov, a reporter for BNT, said. “But unofficially we were told that media that ‘distort the reality in Crimea and are hostile’–a group that we were counted in–are not welcome. All European media are counted in this group, we were told.”

Today, armed men at an improvised checkpoint on the highway leading to Crimea stopped and harassed journalists with the Italian television channel SKY TG24, and confiscated their equipment, which included two computers, flash drives, and batteries, news reports said.

On Thursday, armed men approached an Associated Press crew who were setting up a camera above a restaurant in Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative center, the news service reported. The assailants accused the crew of being spies, seized their equipment, and told them to stand with their hands against the wall. The crew was released unharmed shortly after, but much of their equipment was not returned, the AP report said. The AP said it would take up the matter with Crimean authorities.

A Bulgarian freelance journalist who witnessed the seizure of the AP’s equipment was held at gunpoint and his cellphone and camera seized. Dimitar Kenarov said in a video interview with local reporters that he had filmed the armed men loading the AP’s equipment into a white van with no license plates. Other eyewitnesses of the AP equipment seizure posted videos of the scene on YouTube.

Regional authorities in Crimea have censored at least 18 independent regional and Ukraine-based broadcasters since March 3, the news website Ukrainska Pravda reported. The broadcasters were taken off the air and were dropped by cable providers. At least seven broadcasters’ programming was substituted with that of Russian state-controlled TV channels, IMI reported.

These included the broadcasts of two other independent Ukraine TV stations, Channel 5 and Channel 1+1, which was documented by CPJ on March 6. Evgeniy Garkusha of the Simferopol-based Center for Investigative Journalism told CPJ at the time that Russian state-owned broadcasters’ programming was instead being transmitted on the stations’ airwaves.

Romaniuk, director of IMI, told CPJ on Monday that Crimean authorities–whose intention to secede from Ukraine is openly backed by Russia–are clearing the media landscape ahead of the referendum. “They are purging the media. Journalists are banned from entering Crimea. Only selected Russian reporters are granted entry to the region and access to information,” Romaniuk said.